“What difference you think you can make, one single man, in all this madness?” I felt like Sean Penn from the movie “Thin Red Line” had asked me that question. This wealthy man at a party in Aizawl, Mizoram, India asked me why I was trying help the poor people in Mizoram. They were suffering from a famine called Mautam. He couldn’t understand why I would do it. I told him a version of “The Starfish Story”.
“A young man is walking along the ocean and
Sees a beach on which thousands and thousands
Of starfish have washed ashore. Further along
He sees an old man, walking slowly and
Stooping often, picking up one starfish after
Another and tossing each one gently into the
“Why are you throwing starfish into the
Ocean?” he asks.
“Because the sun is up and the tide is going out
And if I don’t throw them further in they will
“But, old man, don’t you realize there are miles
And miles of beach and starfish all along it!
You can’t possibly save them all, you can’t even
Save one-tenth of them. In fact, even if you
Work all day, your efforts won’t make any
Difference at all.”
The old man listened calmly and then bent
Down to pick up another starfish and threw it
Into the sea. “It made a difference to that one.””
Lian, every day when I draw you a starfish, I think about this story and Mizoram. Your dad told that man at the party, I know about these starfish and I see them dying. I’m helping them simply because I can. I’m not going to wait for somebody else to save them all. If I save the life of one, that’s enough difference to make it worthwhile.
Everyone at that party (why did I ever go?) was 20-100 times richer or more powerful than me. They lived 100 miles away from people starving to death, while I lived 7500 miles away. If anyone in the future ever thanks you for what your dad did for them, say “You’re welcome!” Inside, though, remember he didn’t do anything amazing. He simply did what he could. What was truly amazing, was all the people who could have done something really significant and yet did nothing.
This is why I’m telling you this story. When you are my age now, you will be 20-100 times richer or more powerful than me (at least). By that time, you will have stood on a beach with tens of thousands of starfish dying in the sun. You will have a choice; you can start putting starfish in the sea or you can run away. You can stuff as many things in your life as you can…to try and forget what you’ve seen and know to be true. You can say the starfish deserve to die or that they should have got themselves back into the water. You can pretend that you can’t make a difference or that the starfish will be ok. You can give the excuse that because you can’t save them all or most, it’s not worth saving even one. You can do all that.
The one thing you can never do, is avoid that beach and those starfish. They are real. Your destiny is to stand there amongst them. At least one person is going to ask for your help. I wish you never had to face that decision, but you will. If you decide to put a starfish back in the ocean, I promise you, that you won’t be alone. I will be there beside you.